Egypt Releases Detained Journalists, Activists Amid U.S. Concerns

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Hossam Bahgat in his office at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in Cairo, Egypt, in 2011.
Hossam Bahgat in his office at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in Cairo, Egypt, in 2011.Credit: Sarah Rafea,AP

Egyptian authorities released two activists and three journalists Sunday after months in pre-trial detention, officials and lawyers said, amid concern by President Joe Biden’s administration over the arrest and harassment of government critics and rights advocates.

State security prosecutors ordered the release of the five pending ongoing investigations into charges against them, according to two judicial officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

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Esraa Abdel-Fattah, a pro-democracy activist and writer, walked free early Sunday, her sister Shimaa wrote in a Facebook post. She was a co-founder of the April 6 movement that played a crucial role in the 2011 pro-democracy uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Abdel-Fattah was arrested in October 2019 in a city west of Cairo, during a crackdown that followed small but rare anti-government protests. Hundreds were arrested at the time, but many were later released.

She faces charges of spreading false news, being a member of a banned group and misuse of social media, but despite the lengthy detention has yet to stand trial, according her lawyers.

Authorities also released journalist Gamal el-Gamal, said rights lawyer Nasser Amin. El-Gamal is widely known for his columns critical of the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. Amin posted a photo on Facebook showing him sitting with el-Gamal at home after his release.

Security forces arrested el-Gamal in February upon arrival at Cairo International Airport from Turkey, where he had lived since 2017.

El-Gamal was charged with spreading false news, joining a terrorist organization and inciting public opinion against state institutions.

Authorities also released Abdel-Nasser Ismail, deputy head of the Socialist People’s Alliance Party, after roughly two years in pre-trial detention, his brother Abdel-Mawla Ismail said.

Ismail was arrested in the September 2019 crackdown. He was accused of spreading false news and of joining a terrorist organization.

Among those released Sunday were journalists Mustafa el-Aasar and Moataz Wadnan, according to rights lawyer Malek Adly.

Wadnan, the journalist, was arrested in Feb. 2018 following his interview with Egypt’s former top auditor Hesham Genena who caused uproar after he said former military chief of staff Sami Annan possessed documents incriminating the country’s “leadership.”

El-Aasar was also arrested in Feb. 2018. Both journalists face charges of joining a terrorist group, disseminating false news in separate cases.

The releases came after an outcry by rights advocates when prosecutors last week referred Hossam Bahgat, a leading Egyptian investigative journalist and human rights advocate, to trial. Bahgat said he was accused of insulting Egypt's election authority, spreading false news alleging electoral fraud, and using social media to commit crimes.

The accusations stem from a tweet Bahgat wrote last year blaming the election authority’s chairman for allegedly mishandling last year's parliamentary vote, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, or EIPR, the organization Bahgat founded 18 years ago.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned Bahgat’s indictment and the detention and harassment of Egyptian civil society leaders, academics, and journalists under Sissi.

“We’ve communicated to the Egyptian government our strong belief that individuals such as Hossam Bahgat should not be targeted for expressing their views peacefully,” Price said last week. “As a strategic partner we’ve raised these concerns with the Egyptian government, and we will continue to do so going forward.”

Also last week, an Egyptian court began the trial of six secular activists and journalists, including former lawmaker Zyad el-Elaimy, rights lawyer Khalid Ali said. The six, who were arrested in 2019, face an array of charges including disturbing the public peace through disseminating false news about domestic affairs. The next court session is July 29, Ali said.

El-Elaimy and others were added by a court last year to a “terrorism list” for the next five years. The decision was upheld last week by the Court of Cassation — Egypt's highest criminal court. Among the six was jailed Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath, who helped establish Egypt’s branch of the Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel, known as BDS.

Shaath, the son of a former Palestinian foreign minister, was detained in 2019 but has not been charged. His wife, a French citizen, was deported.

The Egyptian government has in recent years waged a wide-scale crackdown on dissent, jailing thousands of people, mainly Islamists, but also secular activists involved in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Journalists have also been targeted, with dozens imprisoned and some foreign journalists expelled. Egypt remains among the world’s top jailers of journalists, along with Turkey and China, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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